The disappearance of horse power on the farm

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Mary Jane Swedberg of the Jefferson County Draft Horse Association pulls a disk with her team of draft horses, Gilson, 6, Maverick, 8, and Thor, 6.

Watching well-muscled draft horses pull antique machinery across hay ground at Walter Grain Farms, Harold Simon was transported back in time to his grandfather's farm in western Wisconsin.

"I was just a kid during the Depression and it was up to my brothers and I to help my granddad run the farm while my dad and uncle were off working jobs elsewhere, trying to make a little money for the family," Smith said. "I remember turning the soil with a two-bottom plow behind our old farm horses Sarge and Hank. What a job that was."

Teams of Percherons, Belgians and Norwegian Fjord horses, guided by members of the Jefferson County Draft Horse Association, took turns pulling antique farm equipment across a hay field during Farm Technology Days in Jefferson County last week.

Sharing the same plot, draft horses smoothed out the clods of dirt using vintage disks, plows, harrows and drags, while four old tractors pulled two and four-bottom moldboard plows across the field in the time-honored practice of turning the soil. 

Ron Schuler, former general manager of Farm Technology Days, said the moldboard plowing demonstration was a means to pay homage to the genesis of the show.

Ron Luebke guides his team of black percheron horses during a fieldwork demonstration at Farm Technology Days in Jefferson County.

"The first Farm Progress Show in 1954 up in Eau Claire County hosted a national plowing contest," Schuler said. "Those competing in the level flatland contest had to plow as straight as an arrow, making sure they left a clean, dead furrow.

"The winner earned a bit of bragging rights," Schuler said, adding that his brother won one of the coveted titles.

Animal to mechanical

Long before the gas-powered iron horses became a common sight in farm fields across the nation, a simpler, more organic kind of horsepower ruled the day. Early pioneers used the large horses to help clear the land. And by 1900, most farmers were using draft horses for hard labor to run those farms. The 1,800 pound animals were harnessed and pulled plows across fields for corn, oats and wheat, planted the crops, cultivated the fields, brought in wagon loads of hay and corn up to the barn and corn cribs. 

The multi-purposed beasts also pulled the family wagon or sleigh to town and church.

By 1920, America had more than 25 million horses and mules, most being used for farm work, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"Following World War I, a lot of horses were sold off during the Great Depression. A lot of breeding stock was lost," said Allan Roost, a member of the Jefferson County Draft Horse Association (JCDHA). "A few years after that, horses were replaced by tractors so it was a double whammy for them."

Four tractors pull moldboard plows through a hayfield at Farm Technology Days, paying homage to the event's roots as a plowing contest.

Moving out of the Depression years, many farmers found themselves with more income and tractor power slowly began overtaking horsepower on family farms across the county.

"It was around 1945 when dad drove the first tractor on the farm and said we didn't need our horses anymore. Besides, he said horses ate too much and a tractor only needed gasoline," Simon said. "I cried for weeks."

According to agricultural historian Bruce L. Gardner, mechanization changed everything on the farm. He noted that one tractor could replace five horses or mules during the early part of the century.

In 1915, Gardner estimated that 93 million acres of cropland (27 percent of the total harvested) were used to grow feed for horses and mules. Forty-five years later that acreage dropped to 4 million, freeing up land for cash crops. Besides, tractors were faster and stronger than their four-legged counterparts.

While draft horses were disappearing on farms, the trend was further along in cities where dray horses were no longer needed to pull ice, milk and delivery wagons.

"In the late 1920s my grandfather was still using a horse to pull wagons for the Wisconsin Power and Light," said Bob Krueger. "It didn't take long before trucks took their place."

Original horsepower

Roost said most big horses like Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales and specialty breeds like Norwegian Fjord and Punch Suffolks are owned by hobbyists who still revel in the horsepower of the gentle animals.

"We love taking these horses out and doing demonstrations so people can see what these animals are capable of doing. And to show how gentle and mild-mannered they are," Roost said. "They'll do anything you want; just ask them and they'll respond."

The Jefferson County Draft Horse Association members give the public a real-world view of the horse's role in the state's agricultural history several times a year at Old World Wisconsin. 

The volunteers trailer their horses to the historical site in Eagle, Wis. and hitch them up to period farm equipment. During the Autumn on the Farm weekends, members haul logs to the steam engine to be cut up, and ready the farm fields for winter. Pulling vintage farm equipment, the horses help to plant the crops in the spring and bring in the hay during the summer.

Equine nostalgia

Roost says the horses bring back memories for a lot of folks.

"A lot of the older people come up and say 'I used to have a team like that'," he said. "People that were raised with horses or had teams of horses on the farm will stand and watch the horses work for an hour. Nostalgia is so much fun."

Other members hitch up their horses to sleighs and carts, or show them off in parades. One member, Mary Jane Swedberg  is often asked by the African American community to use them in funerals in Milwaukee.

"It's amazing how many city people will come up to her and tell her about the horses they had down south," said Kris Winkelman.

Roost says the club also enjoys the opportunity to educate the public about the history of work horses, including the not so common breeds like the Norwegian Fjords owned by member Dave Kemna.

The small statured work horse hails from the mountainous regions of western Norway and was once used by the Vikings as a war mount. Even as late as World War II, the horses were used for farming and in the country's rugged terrain.

Dave Kemna (left) and his helper, Allan Roost, harness up Kemna's team of Norwegian Fjord horses, one of the world's oldest breeds hailing from Norway.

"The breeding of these horses is held to very strict standards in Norway, and the stallions and mares have to meet those standards or they can't be used for breeding," Roost said. "There's a similar standard for the Suffolk Punch breed, England's oldest breed. They lost almost the entire breed during World War I."

According to historical archives, thousands of the statuesque horses died during World War I when they were used to haul heavy artillery to the front lines. While their numbers recovered after the war, populating farms across the country, the introduction of tractors dramatically reduced their numbers.

Roost said the breeding stock was taken in hand at the Hollesly Open Prison Stud Farm, where inmates once worked with the animals as part of their rehabilitation.

While many work horses lost their livelihood with the mechanization of the agricultural industry, Roost said members want to keep the horses' role on the farm and in history alive.

Members of the Jefferson County Draft Horse Association perform field work at Old World Wisconsin.

"It's things like this, where we're giving demonstrations at Farm Technology Days, fairs or Old World Wisconsin where we can educate people (and help them reminisce a little) about these animals that I still enjoy after all these years," Roost said.

Simon continued to watch as a team of black Percherons pulled a small drag down the field, his voice wistful.

"Our horses were so smart and so good with us kids, especially when we were daydreaming and not paying attention at the reins," he chuckled. "A tractor would have run right into a tree, but not Sarge and Hank."